After administrators in the Mountain View Whisman School District spent last year overhauling their math programs, students scored higher than ever before on standardized tests in the subject.
But the news was not so good in "English language arts," the other subject scrupulously monitored under federal No Child Left Behind legislation. So many subgroups of the district's students — non-English-speakers, disabled students and others — did poorly in English that Mountain View Whisman found its schools among the 2,241 in the state unable to meet the law's standards.
Those 2,241 schools represent about 37 percent of the 6,020 California schools participating in the No Child Left Behind program, and administrators say that percentage is sure to go up.
NCLB, as it's known among educators, sets universal goals for school districts nationwide, then determines whether those goals are being met through yearly batteries of tests (called STAR tests in California). But it doesn't stop there: The goals are an upwardly moving target, jumping 10.5 percentage points in the recent school year alone. That rate is far too steep, educators say, when students have been expected to improve scores by 2 to 3 percentage points in previous years.
"In a year or so, no one is going to care, because no one is going to meet the expectations," said Mary Lairon, assistant superintendent in the elementary school district. "NCLB targets become less realistic and useful as they continue to increase at such a rate."
In sweeping legislation proposed by President George W. Bush, Congress first enacted NCLB in 2002 to make schools and teachers accountable for improving student performance, with the goal of having all students become "proficient" or better in math and language arts by 2014. A ranking system called "Academic Yearly Progress," or AYP, ranks students as "basic," "proficient" or "advanced," partially depending on how they perform on the yearly California Standards Tests.
Each state outlines its own measurement goals, and officials in California decided to start small. They expected each subgroup to increase its performance by only a couple percentage points every year at first. Now, to make up for lost time, the standards are jumping dramatically — increasing 11 percent each year until 2014 — and many local administrators say the new benchmarks are impossible for every subgroup at every school to meet.
Under NCLB rules, students are categorized into subgroups depending on their ethnicity, socio-economic background, language proficiency and any learning disabilities they may have. English language learners and Latinos, in both Mountain View school districts and the state, fall significantly behind their Asian and white counterparts in math and English testing.
Close call for MVLA
For the first time, the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District almost fell short of meeting these standards in each subgroup, with socio-economically disadvantaged students missing the benchmark of 33.4 percent by one-tenth of one point.
High school district administrators said this difference "amounts to one or two students," and they are checking student demographics to make sure they account for the correct number of disadvantaged students in the district. After this, they said, they will probably just make the cut.
But the district may not be as lucky next year, when 44 percent of all students must be proficient or above in both subjects.
"It is like high jumping at five feet, missing twice, and then going to six feet," Superintendent Barry Groves said of the legislation.
Both districts have schools which receive Title I funding, which is designated for schools with a relatively large percentage of low-income students. In exchange for the funding, they must meet the federal benchmarks. (Districts which forgo Title I funding do not need to participate in all of the NCLB programs.)
In the 2002-03 academic year, 16 percent of middle and elementary school students were expected to be proficient in math, and 13.6 percent were expected to be proficient in English language arts. In 2007-08, 37 percent of California elementary and middle school students were expected to be proficient in math and 35.2 percent in English arts. Next year, the benchmarks will jump to 47.5 percent in math and 46 percent in English. The numbers are similar for high school districts.
A district is put on probation after its first year of not meeting these targets. If it falls behind two years in a row, it is designated a "Program Improvement" school, and has two years to catch up. Local administrators predict all California schools will become Program Improvement schools by 2014.
"By this time, playing the catch-up game is going to be difficult," said Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent of educational services in the high school district.
If a school does not make the Academic Yearly Progress expectations after two years, punishments begin to increase, with pressure on both the district and the school.
Program Improvement schools and their districts may have to extend the academic year, while also offering students the choice of changing schools or attending supplemental programs. At that point, the school begins concentrating on replacing teachers and developing its staff.
After schools have been labeled Program Improvement schools for five years, punishments are enacted, and "after that there is no year six, and the schools just collect," said Pam Slater, spokesperson for the California Department of Education.
The elementary school district's Lairon, in an interview earlier this year, wondered how such severe measures will improve education.
"If everyone becomes Program Improvement, what is the point?"